NEWS

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April 27, 2020

RAs and House Councils Turn Virtual to Keep House Culture Alive

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Lee Harris / The Chicago Maroon

“I came to UChicago for the house culture,” Chloe Bartholomew, a second-year in the College and the president of the House Council of Salisbury House, said about her experience with house culture at the University. “I think it’s been a really formative part of my experience being able to be in a house like Salisbury. That’s been really essential to forming different types of bonds and getting to meet quirky people that I might not have met in my classes.”

As the University switched to remote learning, students who live in housing became unable to access this essential aspect of campus life in the traditional way. Now students like Bartholomew are turning to virtual means to stay involved.

Many houses are continuing their weekly house meetings on Zoom. With less need for the usual structure of house meetings, houses now dedicate this time for residents to check in and catch up with each other. Some have developed creative themes to engage former residents, such as virtual “pet love” events and short presentations of their chosen topics from students.  

“Zoom is nice because you get to see everyone’s face, and I like being able to actually see my friends,” third-year Rebecca Wixted, from Vincent House, said. “But it requires a little more planning ahead.”

Wixted pointed out that using Discord, a communication software, helps with overcoming the limits of Zoom, allowing students to have casual interactions with each other.

Many houses across campus have created Discord servers, which give residents more chances to interact with each other casually and hold creative, spontaneous events. For example, at Hitchcock house, the setup of their server mimics the different components of a residence hall, and it includes channels dedicated to different interests, such as arts and crafts, knitting, music sharing, and pets.

“A lot of what we are trying to do is to provide a sense of continuity. A lot of people are really displaced during this time, or have been kicked out of their homes,” third-year Roy McKenzie, Hitchcock House president, told The Maroon. “So, one thing we are doing is keeping, as many as we can…events that would happen during the quarter and [working to] translate them to these new and obviously very different settings.”

Many houses have thought of innovative ways to keep their house traditions going. At Graham House, residents nominate “Heroes and Weenies of the Week” during house meetings. Residents at Vincent House have been able to continue the tradition of playing a decision-based video game in the house lounge using Discord and online streaming platform Twitch.

Residential staff are also actively supporting their residents through their roles. Third-year Mateo Olvera-Sandoval, resident assistant (RA) of Stony Island House, said that he is compiling a weekly newsletter, the Stony Chronicle, with works from house photography contests, movie recommendations, and creative Facebook poll results.

“Our job is a little bit different, but we still have the same responsibilities like being a responsible employee and [responding to] Title IX if we become aware of that, and, obviously, being there for residents…whether it is academic or social life,” Sandoval said.

Although the circumstances this quarter have made it more difficult for RAs to reach out and check in with residents on an individual basis, an essential part of their job, they have tried their best to continue offering their support via the internet.

Third-year Jonathan Zhou, RA of Hitchcock House, said, “What we as RAs have to realize is that this is the best we can do, and it shows the residents that we still care. Even if it doesn’t feel organic to us, I think people will still appreciate it. Worst-case scenario—or maybe the best-case scenario—they say, no, I’m fine, I don’t need anything from you.”

Fourth-year Ariel Salmon, RA at Snell House, has kept her weekly tea time to check in and chat with residents. Other RAs have also organized virtual study breaks, TV-watching parties, and game nights for students to talk with other housemates.

Students agreed that having virtual house activities during the pandemic has helped them cope with the stress of quarantining. “It’s not fun to be in quarantine and not have a library to go to or to be studying with other people. Having [a house watch party] later in the day is definitely something that is keeping me productive,” first-year Cristian Molina from Vincent House told The Maroon.

McKenzie also said that continuing house culture in spring quarter has helped him to stay positive amid the hard circumstances. “It would be really hard to go through this quarantine feeling disconnected, so for me [virtual house culture] has been a great asset,” he said. “I might not see them every day like I would before, but I am making that effort to connect to the community.”

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